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Chloe Effron

The Tragic History of RC Cola

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Chloe Effron

Who drinks RC Cola, anyway?

It’s a question Coke and Pepsi drinkers have been asking for decades. In the prolonged marketing battle that began in the '70s and saw the beloved major brands duke it out via celebrity endorsements, rewards promotions (Pepsi Stuff, anyone?), an onslaught of advertisements, and even a race into space, RC Cola remained on the sidelines, a quiet blue and red can that seemed content to simply be.

Fact is, RC has had loyal fans throughout its more than 100-year history. Its roots go deep in the south, where drinking one with a Moon Pie is a blue-collar tradition that’s still popular today. There’s even a song that celebrates the pairing. RC also has a presence internationally, in countries such as Estonia, Thailand, and Iceland. It’s currently one of the top-selling soda brands in the Philippines.

But the number of RC drinkers could have been much, much higher. In an alternate—and completely plausible—universe, it would have given Coke and Pepsi a run for their money. At one point, it did. Believe it or not, Royal Crown Cola used to be one of the most innovative companies in the beverage industry. It came out with the first canned soda, the first caffeine-free soda, and the first 16-ounce soda. It was the first to take diet cola mainstream, and the first to stage nationwide taste tests.

Given its long and pioneering history, RC deserved to be more than the middling soda brand it is today. In an industry that lives and dies by marketing, RC didn’t do nearly enough. But its failure wasn’t just due to lack of initiative. It was also a case of supremely bad luck, bad judgment, and a fateful ingredient known as cyclamate.

Like its main rival, Coca-Cola, RC Cola also started in Georgia, in the town of Columbus. It was a disagreement with Coca-Cola, in fact, that led a man named Claud Hatcher to develop what would become the Royal Crown Cola Company. Hatcher was a pharmacist and a grocery wholesaler who, along with his father, ran the Hatcher Grocery Company. In the early 1900s, the Hatchers sold a lot of Coca-Cola to their customers—so much, that Claud felt he was entitled to a discount or some sort of commission acknowledging his contribution to the company. The local Coke representative, however, denied the request, knowing full well Coke was the most popular soda in the country and not one to be pushed around by its customers. Frustrated, Hatcher told the representative he’d purchased his last case of Coca-Cola, and vowed to develop his own brand.

After months spent tinkering in the basement of Hatcher Grocery, Claud came up with Royal Crown Ginger Ale, an effervescent alternative to Coke’s caramel-colored (and formerly cocaine-laced) bestseller. The drink, with its regal-sounding name, proved quite popular, and soon Hatcher and his father ditched the grocery gig to become full-time soda bottlers. Claud’s next development was Chero-Cola, a cherry-flavored cola that would grow the company into a legitimate soda maker and, inevitably, put him in direct competition with the brand he used to sell.

In the early 1900s, like today, Coca-Cola was far and away the most profitable soda company in the United States. And with that success came numerous imitators eager to cash in on the market it had created. According to Tristan Donovan, author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, these included knockoffs like Candy-Cola, Kos-Kola, and Coke-Ola. There was even a cola called Klu Ko Kolo, made to attract those suddenly interested in the Ku Klux Klan after the group was featured in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. Coke was hardly amused. To maintain its dominance in the industry, the company began suing these imitators for trademark infringement. Over the next three decades, Coca-Cola sued more than 500 copycat manufacturers, according to Donovan, and won more often than not.

Caught in the crosshairs were Claud Hatcher and Chero-Cola, which Coke argued could not use the term “cola” in its name. Hatcher fought the lawsuit, and continued to fight it for several years while simultaneously building Chero-Cola’s distribution to more than 700 franchise bottlers. His soda was no mere imitator, Hatcher would claim time and again, and he would not be bullied out of business.

In 1923, a judge ruled in Coca-Cola’s favor, saying that Chero-Cola was in violation of Coke’s trademark. That meant Hatcher had to drop “cola” from his company’s name, thereby costing him valuable brand recognition. A drink called “Chero” just didn’t sound the same, and sure enough, Chero sales slipped. After a few years Hatcher changed the company’s name to that of his most popular fruit drink, Nehi (pronounced “knee-high”).

The Great Depression put a dent in Nehi’s sales, just as it did for other soda companies. To make matters worse, Claud Hatcher died in 1933, leaving Nehi in the hands of its sales director, H.R. Mott. What looked to be a disaster, though, turned out to be just the opportunity the company needed. Mott was a shrewd businessman. Immediately after taking over, he jettisoned poor-performing drinks and focused the company’s efforts on top sellers. He also re-introduced Chero-Cola without the cherry flavoring, and under a new name—one that, after two turbulent decades, harkened back to the company’s beginnings. In 1934, Nehi came out with Royal Crown, and over the next several years its sales increased tenfold.

A 1943 ad featuring Rita Hayworth. Jose Roitberg via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The middle of the 20th century brought one win after another for Nehi. In 1944, the courts ruled that Coke did not, in fact, own the word “cola,” thus allowing Royal Crown to become Royal Crown Cola, or RC Cola. With nationwide distribution and sales on the up and up, Nehi shoveled money into print and television ads featuring stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and Lucille Ball. “You Bet RC Tastes Best!” magazine ads crowed. And this wasn’t just an empty boast: Nehi had staged public taste tests across the country pitting RC against competitors Coke and Pepsi, and declared itself the winner. It was the first time a beverage company had ever done such a promotion. Whether or not the tests were rigged in some way is up for debate; what mattered was that people believed them.

Slowly, steadily, RC muscled its way into soda fountains and onto grocery store shelves. To stay top-of-mind with consumers, it continued to innovate. In 1954, it became the first company to nationally distribute soda in aluminum cans. Shortly after, it began selling soda in 16-ounce bottles as an alternative size for thirsty fans. In 1959, Nehi changed its name to match its bestselling product, becoming the Royal Crown Cola Company.

But while Royal Crown had made significant progress, it would continue to trail Coke and Pepsi so long as it continued to sell a similar product. What it needed was something new. What it needed was a game changer.

In 1952, the founder of a sanitarium in Williamsburg, Brooklyn named Hyman Kirsch invented a sugar-free soda called No-Cal. Available in ginger ale and black cherry, No-Cal was made specifically for patients in Kirsch's sanitarium who were either diabetic or suffering from heart ailments. Kirsch quickly discovered that his drink had a much wider appeal, and along with his son began making other flavors, like chocolate, root beer, and cherry. The two sold No-Cal to local stores and quickly built up a distribution network that extended throughout New York and the northeast. Since Kirsch wasn’t a businessman, however, he struggled to expand beyond the regional market. He also continued marketing No-Cal mainly toward diabetic customers, further limiting his reach.

Kirsch’s success caught the eye of the Royal Crown Cola Company. In the mid '50s, it began secretly developing its own diet soft drink—one that would appeal not just to diabetics, but to an entire nation of increasingly calorie-conscious consumers. While other food and beverage companies continued to push everything sweet, salty, and delicious, RC recognized a budding demand for healthier choices.

After a few years RC came out with Diet Rite, a drink that the company believed would be the breakthrough it so desperately needed. Test markets had emphatically confirmed its appeal. One, in South Carolina, saw supermarket managers clamoring for the product. “In Greenville, S.C., where we had been running a poor third behind Coke and Pepsi, we actually had grocery store managers getting into their cars and chasing down RC trucks to get Diet Rite on their shelves,” one RC rep noted.

What could cause such a reaction? It wasn’t just that Diet Rite was nearly calorie-free—it’s that it was nearly calorie-free and tasted strikingly similar to the real thing. The key ingredient—the one Kirsch had first used in No-Cal—was an alternative sweetener called cyclamate that was 30 times sweeter than sugar. First developed by a student at the University of Illinois in 1937, it was initially sold as a tabletop sweetener. In 1958, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval, paving the way for its use as a mass-market ingredient. The timing couldn’t have been better for Royal Crown.

In a particularly shrewd bit of marketing, the company made sure to sell Diet Rite just like real cola: In the same slender bottles for a nickel each, or as a six pack. It also made sure to put the word “cola” on its labels. Consumers wanted something different, RC executives figured, but not too different.

When Diet Rite hit shelves in 1962, it was a smashing success. Within a year and a half of its release, it had rocketed up to number four on the sales chart, behind Coke, Pepsi, and regular RC Cola. America, it turned out, was ready for what had for years seemed oxymoronic: a healthy soda. The rest of the industry was in something close to a state of shock. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” reported Georgia Trend, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier.”

A 1967 ad featuring ballet dancer Tanya Morgan. Mid-Century Pretty via Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

Coke and Pepsi were caught completely off guard. Not only had they not anticipated the mainstream appeal of diet soda, they didn’t even have anything in the pipeline. Within a year, Coke would scramble to release TaB, which it also sweetened with cyclamate. Pepsi responded with Patio Cola, a diet soda aimed at women that also contained cyclamate, and which it would soon rebrand as Diet Pepsi. There were, predictably, numerous other fast followers to the market, including long-forgotten brands like LoLo, Coolo-Coolo, and Bubble-Up. In 1965, Coke came out with a citrus-flavored diet soda called Fresca.

None of them, however, could catch Diet Rite, which continued to build market share for Royal Crown Cola.

“RC had the dominant diet cola brand, and that was a very big deal,” Tristan Donovan tells mental_floss. “For RC, there was this sense of, ‘finally, we’ve broken through.’”

By the late '60s, Royal Crown owned 10 percent of the soda market. That was far from dominating, but it was still a very respectable figure, and the company was poised for further growth. By all accounts, the company that started in the basement of a small town grocery store was positioned to become a major player in the soda industry.

The rise of diet soda may have delighted soft drink manufacturers and American consumers, but it downright frightened the sugar industry. After decades of pumping its signature product into sodas, here was a comparable beverage that did away with sugar entirely. What if diet sodas continued to grow? What if all sodas became diet sodas? Ever resourceful, the industry searched for legal channels to undermine diet drinks.

In the mid-'60s, it began: the slow trickle of studies suggesting that cyclamate was hazardous. In 1964, a study linked cyclamate to cancer in animals, and raised the possibility that it could have adverse effects on humans. But the authors stopped short of linking the sweetener to specific conditions like cancer or birth defects. Royal Crown president W.H. Glenn dismissed the study as “nothing derogatory,” and other manufacturers echoed that sentiment. As the decade wore on, however, studies made more specific claims. In 1969, the decisive blow against cyclamate came in the form of two studies. One claimed that chicken eggs injected with cyclamate resulted in deformed chicks, while another found that rats given doses of cyclamate showed an increased risk of developing bladder tumors. The studies’ findings, splashed across newspapers and television screens nationwide, implicated cyclamate as a very dangerous ingredient.

“Everyone began saying, ‘Oh my god, diet soda’s going to give you cancer!’” Donovan says. “The market collapsed almost instantly.”

The FDA, meanwhile, had no choice but to remove its "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) classification for cyclamate. The diet soda industry went into a tailspin, plummeting from 20 percent of the market to less than 3 percent. Manufacturers frantically reformulated their drinks and tried to reassure consumers, all to no avail. Overnight, the diet soda craze had come to a standstill.

The downturn hit Royal Crown particularly hard. Diet Rite had been its star performer, the one advantage it had over Coke and Pepsi. Without it, all the company had was the nation’s third favorite cola, which on its own wasn’t going to gain any ground on its rivals. After a few weeks, the company re-released Diet Rite, this time sweetened with saccharine. But the taste—saccharine has a notoriously metallic tinge to it—wasn’t the same, and many people weren’t ready to come back to diet drinks anyway. Eventually, Coke and Pepsi re-entered the market with better formulas and marketing, and once again, Royal Crown Cola had merely served as the guinea pig for its competitors.

According to Donovan, the cyclamate backlash was the direct result of the sugar industry’s meddling. That lobby, he said, provided $600,000 in funding for the studies that doomed cyclamate, both of which are now seen as controversial because they involved exposing animals to much higher levels of the ingredient than any Diet Rite or TaB drinker could ever possibly imbibe. To get the same amount of cyclamate as the rats in one of the studies, for instance, you’d have to drink more than 500 diet drinks a day. Today, cyclamate is widely used as a sweetener in countries like Australia, South Africa, and throughout the European Union. Scientists around the world say it's safe for consumption, yet the results of the 1969 studies still linger. The United States, Japan, and 45 other countries have upheld their ban on the additive.

How could such dubious results be admissible? Donovan pointed to a legal loophole called the Delaney Clause, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 established by a senator named James Delaney, who investigated insecticides and carcinogens in the food industry in the late '50s. The clause required the FDA to ban any additive found to “induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” As well-meaning as the Delaney Clause was, it didn’t outline restrictions on the amount of a certain ingredient that could be tested. No matter if it was a granule or a gallon, if it proved hazardous to human or animal health, the ingredient had to be pulled.

“The Delaney Clause was a very well-intentioned but poorly thought-out law,” Donovan says.

As unfortunate as Royal Crown’s luck was, its response in the years that followed didn’t help matters. Vowing to never again put so many resources behind a single product, the company began to diversify. It bought two fruit juice manufacturers, Texsun and Adams Packing. Then it took the truly bizarre step of purchasing seven home furnishing companies. What, exactly, the soda maker saw in that industry is unclear, but it must have been pretty compelling: By the mid-'70s, nearly a quarter of Royal Crown Cola’s business was tied up in making mirrors, picture frames, floor tiles, and cabinets.

The downhill slide accelerated. In 1976, Royal Crown bought the fast-food chain Arby’s. That acquisition, at least, made some sense, as it would give the company an outlet for its fountain sodas. But Royal Crown mismanaged the chain, introducing burgers and other conventional fast-food fare to a company that had made its name with roast beef sandwiches. In 1984, Victor Posner, a billionaire businessman who specialized in corporate takeovers, acquired Royal Crown, which by this time had dropped the “cola” in its name to become Royal Crown Companies. In the nine years Posner owned Royal Crown, he slashed the company’s marketing budget and battled executives over the company’s direction. In 1987, the government convicted him on tax evasion charges, and soon after investigated him for insider trading.

While Royal Crown was busy cutting costs and making lampshades, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were dumping millions into an unprecedented marketing arms race. Beginning in the mid-'70s, the two began one-upping each other with taste tests, rewards programs, TV ads, new products, and numerous other promotions. Pepsi unveiled Pepsi Stuff; Coke countered with Coke Rewards. Coke put Bill Cosby in its ads; Pepsi answered with the King of Pop. In 1985, after it found out that Coke was putting a specially engineered Coke can aboard the Challenger space shuttle, Pepsi quickly rigged up its own can and pressured NASA into letting it onboard. Neither can worked the way it was supposed to, and the astronauts complained about the gimmick. But no matter: The two companies had been to outer space.

From the consumer perspective, the cola wars looked to be two giants bent on destroying each other. The reality, though, was that both of them benefited from the exposure.

“The cola wars took sales away from any brands that weren’t Coca-Cola and Pepsi,” Donovan says. “At this point, nobody is even thinking about RC because they’re not in this race.”

With its limited ad budget, RC came out with some standard-issue TV spots showing people chugging from a bottle before pausing to smile at the camera. There were even some mildly amusing ads, including one in which prisoners “sentenced to a life of Coke or Pepsi” snuck cans and bottles of RC into their cells.

To most people, though, the more than 100-year-old brand was largely invisible.

An Onion headline from 1997 seemed to sum things up: "RC Cola Celebrates 10th Purchase." Through the '80s and into the '90s, Royal Crown continued to lose market share while its two main competitors gobbled it up. The company had a loyal following and national distribution, but in the eyes of a Coke-and-Pepsi nation, it was the loser, the perennial bronze medalist.

Things only got worse for RC. As the two cola giants continued to grow, they inked deals with retailers that guaranteed them ample shelf space. They offered special discounts to supermarkets and began paying slotting fees, a practice that still exists today. (If you’ve ever wondered why Coke and Pepsi dominate the soda aisle, it’s because they’re oftentimes paying for that real estate.)

"[Coke and Pepsi] started carving up the retail market and shutting RC out in the process," Donovan explains. "So not only was RC losing out on advertising, it was losing out on stores as well."

RC tried to wedge its way back into the fight. After the company got out from under Posner’s ownership, it gained a solid advertising and development budget. Its first attempt to jump-start sales came in 1995 with RC Draft, a so-called “premium” soda made with cane sugar. Unfortunately for RC, people didn’t see what was so “premium” about the drink, and within a year it was pulled from shelves. In 2000, Cadbury-Schweppes bought RC, then moved it over to its Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. In the years that followed, RC came out with a few souped-up colas—RC Edge and RC Kick—along with low-calorie options RC Ten and a re-branded Diet RC. None of the new products managed to move the dial, and today no RC product is anywhere near the best-seller charts.

So who drinks RC Cola these days? In addition to its southern fans, the brand has a presence in Chicago, where it’s served at Bears games and at pizzerias throughout the city, which often give out a free liter with orders. According to Encyclopizzeria, that arrangement began back in the '60s, when a creative local bottler got in good with local pie shops, figuring the pairing of RC and deep dish pizza would generate good vibes with customers. It did, and today many a Chicagoan has a soft spot for the underdog cola.

Aside from the Windy City, though, RC’s appeal seems tied to small town America and times gone by. “The company never shook its strictly southern, small-town image,” states the New Georgia Encyclopedia, which chronicles the state’s history. For fans of RC, that image as the overlooked, underappreciated casualty of the cola wars is just what they love about it. It’s the scrappy bargain brand—the un-hyped, unadorned alternative for true cola lovers.

Donovan, for one, believes RC’s narrative would have been much different had the cyclamate ban not happened. Diet Rite’s continued success could have given Royal Crown the confidence—not to mention the funds—needed to market more aggressively and continue innovating. Its name recognition could have grown, and its clout with restaurants and retailers along with it. Could it have joined Coke and Pepsi in the stratosphere of soda sales, or even have overtaken them?

"RC probably wouldn’t have had the resources of Coke or Pepsi," Donovan surmises, "but they could have held their own a lot better."

These days, being a top soda company isn’t something worth bragging about. The entire soft drink industry is declining, and has been for more than a decade as consumers opt for healthier choices. Over the past 20 years, sales of full-calorie soft drinks have fallen by more than 25 percent. Instead of one-upping each other, Coke and Pepsi are scrambling to stay relevant with a nation that’s rejecting their signature beverages. They’re expanding into juices and snacks, developing new zero-calorie soft drinks and dumping millions of dollars into advertising tying their brands to happiness, nostalgia, and other emotions that might transcend any worries about personal health.

Drinking less soda is surely a good thing. But for many people, there will always be something wonderful about a full-calorie, ice-cold cola. Whether it’s an everyday thing or an every-so-often treat, odds are most people will reach for a Coke or Pepsi. But if history had gone just a bit differently, they could be just as easily reaching for an RC Cola.

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Supermarket Introduces 'Quiet Hour' to Help Customers With Autism Feel at Ease
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For some people on the autism spectrum, a routine trip to the supermarket can quickly morph into a nightmare. It’s not just the crowds and commotion that trigger feelings of panic—sounds that many shoppers have learned to tune out, like intercom announcements or beeps from the checkout scanner, can all add up to cause sensory overload. But grocery stores don’t have to be a source of dread for people with such sensitivities. By turning down the volume for one hour each day, one supermarket is making itself more inclusive to a greater number of customers.

As Mashable reports, Australian grocery store chain Coles is partnering with the Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) organization to roll out "quiet hour" in two of its stores. From 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., the lights will be dimmed by 50 percent, the radio and register sounds will be turned down to their lowest volumes, and cart collection and non-emergency PA announcements will be put on hold. The changes are meant to accommodate shoppers with autism and their families, but all shoppers are welcome.

The initiative is based on research conducted by Aspect on people on the autism spectrum and those who care for them. In addition to modifying the atmosphere, Coles has taken steps to educate its staff. If someone does start to feel overwhelmed in a Coles stores, employees trained in understanding and dealing with autism symptoms will be on hand to assist them.

Coles is following the lead of several chains that have made themselves more inviting to shoppers on the spectrum. Last year, British supermarket chain Asda introduced its own quiet hour, and Toys "R" US implemented something similar in its UK stores for the holiday season.

The Coles initiative is just a trial run for now, but if the customer reaction is positive enough it may be here to stay. Visitors to their Ringwood and Balwyn East stores in Victoria will have a chance to experience it now through the end of October.

[h/t Mashable]

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collector’s legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: Noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot, the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their bodies to medical science.

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